Ostriches Don’t Actually Bury Their Heads in the Sand

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By Elisabeth Egan

By Betsy Bird
Illustrated by David Small

Quick: What’s the one thing you know about ostriches? Probably that they bury their heads in the sand. Actually, they don’t; they’re just checking their eggs. But I was in the same ostrich-ignorant boat until I met Gaucho, the avian sidekick in Betsy Bird’s charming, galvanizing and slightly wacky novel “Long Road to the Circus,” about a 12-year-old farm girl, Suzy Bowles, who, in the summer of 1920, sets her sights on ostrich-riding as her ticket out of sleepy Burr Oak, Mich.

Before I educate you about these “keen, kooky, modern-day dinosaurs,” let me introduce you to Gaucho’s co-star. Suzy is the second-youngest of five kids and the daughter and granddaughter of hardworking folks who do their chores, get to church and occasionally enjoy a scrumptious-looking homemade apple pie. (You haven’t seen a lattice crust until you’ve beheld one illustrated by David Small.) Suzy loves her family, but the last thing she wants to do is become a local biddy gabbing outside the library (“a woman who sees gossip more like air than food”).

One morning she follows her “lag-about,” ex-cowboy uncle to a farm owned by the regal and refined Madame Marantette, formerly of Ringling Brothers (before their merger with Barnum & Bailey, apparently). There, Suzy meets Madame’s herd of ostriches, one of whom — the ornery Gaucho — has been conscripted to pull a surrey at the country fair. His owner has designs on a world record, and Suzy wants in on the plan. If you’ve ever read a book involving a plucky girl who falls under the sway of a reclusive outsider, you won’t be surprised to learn that preparations include not only Gaucho’s training, but also the education of Suzy, who gets a crash course in poise and tenacity. Wrangling an ostrich is no easy feat, and neither is preparing for the world she glimpses in Madame’s photo albums.

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    But about those birds. Props to our aptly named author, a librarian who purées factual information into her story without a hint of spinach aftertaste. Here’s what I learned while rooting for Suzy and getting my bearings in Burr Oak: Ostriches weigh around 320 pounds, the same as two sheep. They can run 40 miles per hour. They don’t sweat, they pant. And their eyeballs are bigger than their brains. Suzy describes Gaucho’s neck as a freaky hybrid of an elephant’s trunk and a snake. “Name me one thing in this good great world important enough to justify a neck like that,” Bird writes. “One thing. Can’t be done.”

    Occasionally we encounter language that’s out of step with the time period — for instance, I don’t think a “woman-owned” photography studio would have meant much to a 12-year-old during the Woodrow Wilson administration. But the appearance of, say, “literally” and “deal” in their modern incarnations may help acclimate history-wary readers. (“Olden times? Forget it,” a close relative once said of the Little House books.)

    Small’s illustrations will also pull in reluctant types. A cozy house at sunrise, a gaggle of feisty chickens, a scarecrow minding a field — these drawings made me homesick for the Bowles place when I left. We learn that the setting was inspired by Bird’s grandmother’s farm, which wasn’t far from the home of the real-life circus performer Madame Marantette — which happened to be the same house where David Small lived when Bird was growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich., in the 1980s. (He came to speak at her school.)

    Even more amazing is the rush that comes from racing across a field on the back of an ostrich, braids flying, Queen Anne’s lace speeding by in a blur. With its timeless messages about big dreams and the beloved people who make them possible, “Long Road to the Circus” takes you there. It is — sorry not sorry — a brass ring to grab with both hands.

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